A heritage language is a language that is spoken in the home or the community which is different from the dominant language in the country. In the United States, the dominant language is English. If someone grows up in a family where Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Polish, is spoken, then that person would be a heritage speaker of that language.
Alternative terms to “heritage language” have been and are being used in the United States and in other countries. These terms include “community language” (Baker & Jones, 1998; Corson, 1999; Wiley, 2001, 2005) and “home language” (e.g. Yeung, Marsh, & Suliman, 2000).
Why is “Heritage Language” Important?
Heritage language speakers often have a range of fluency in their community language. Some people are able to read, write, and speak fluently in their heritage language. Other people may just understand the heritage language and be able to speak a few words or phrases.
The reasons for such a range in experiences and levels of fluency with heritage languages are complex, ranging from personal family choice to systemic oppression (i.e. English only laws, forced assimilation practices, Native American boarding schools).
Many heritage language speakers feel shame for not speaking their heritage language more fluently. It is important to understand that lack of fluency in a heritage language is not a personal failure; our society was not built to support and cultivate multilingualism. Any working knowledge of a heritage language is a good thing and a strong foundation for passing along what you do know to your children.
Examples of heritage language speakers in the US include:
Aziz Ansari – Heritage language: Tamil
Selena Quintanilla – Heritage language: Spanish
Constance Wu – Heritage language: Mandarin
Miguel – Heritage language: Spanish
Everyone and every situation is different. No matter what your level, any exposure to a heritage language is a good thing and a strength in raising a multilingual and multicultural child.